Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The titular poem of Seamus Heaney's collection of poems also titled Station Island takes its name from the island in Lough Derg off the coast of Ireland. Station Island is home to the pilgrimage site St. Patrick’s Purgatory, where Christ allegedly showed St. Patrick the entrance to a cave that served as the entrance to purgatory. Heaney claims to have been inspired to pen this collection by Dante’s Divine Comedy. As such, Heaney’s collection has three sections (though they do not share the titles of Dante’s epic trilogy). Unlike Dante, Heaney foregoes hell and heaven, focusing instead on the experience of purgatory. The result is the lengthy, twelve-part poem titled "Station Island."
The characters are ghosts of the narrator's own past. These include a man carrying a bow-saw who appears among hazel trees in the opening section. He is eventually identified as one Simon Sweeney (Sequence 1). Several characters are unnamed, such as the red-headed girl with whom the speaker remembers his first sexual encounter (Sequence 3). The poet also meets many unnamed pilgrims.
The speaker also encounters an aggressive man who is eventually identified as William Carleton, a patriotic Irish writer. Carleton accuses the speaker, who resembles Heaney himself, of being a "turncoat" for having left Northern Ireland during the so-called "Troubles" (sectarian conflicts between Protestants and Catholics from the 1960s to 1990s). Carleton's presence is a stand-in for the cause of Irish patriotism more broadly.
In Sequence 4, the narrator meets with authority figures, one of whom, Barney Murphy, is the Head Teacher at a school. Murphy appears as a wise, old, respectable man, whom the protagonist venerates for his respectable position. Murphy regrets the fate that has befallen the school where he used to work.
In the final section, the poet meets with iconic Irish writer James Joyce. Joyce’s character is at first silent. When he speaks, he scorns the speaker for praising him. Furthermore, Joyce criticizes the narrator for making his pilgrimage alongside so many others. Joyce encourages the speaker to establish his own sense of identity independent from the masses. This encouragement results in the speaker’s renunciation of Catholicism, a decision that reflects Joyce’s own spiritual path.